United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Western Division
MEMORANDUM OF OPINION
Scott Coogler, United States District Judge
Aaron Mitchell (“Mitchell”), David Hemphill
(“Hemphill”), Byron Claybrook
(“Claybrook”), Michael Carter
(“Carter”), Donny Curruth
(“Curruth”), Jerry Pruitt (“Pruitt”),
Cory Patterson (“Patterson”), and Todd Burroughs
“Plaintiffs”) bring suit against Defendants City
of Northport, Northport Fire Organization (“NFO”)
and Fire Chief Bart Marshall(“Chief
Marshall”). Plaintiffs' claims arise from their
alleged mistreatment by Defendants because they are not
members of the NFO. The City of Northport and Chief Marshall
have moved to dismiss Plaintiffs' Amended Complaint.
(See Doc. 24.) Plaintiffs have timely filed their
opposition. The motion is fully briefed and ripe for review.
For the reasons stated below, Defendants' motion to
dismiss (doc. 24) is due to be granted in part and denied in
the time period in question, Plaintiffs worked at the
Northport Fire Department, part of the City of Northport. The
NFO is a domestic, non-profit corporation that has members
who work at the Northport Fire Department. Plaintiffs'
claims arise from their alleged mistreatment by Chief
Marshall, who was hired by the City of Northport in 2013.
Chief Marshall is Caucasian and is alleged to have been hired
despite an acrimonious history. The City of Northport is
specifically alleged to have hired Chief Marshall without
conducting a background check. Each Plaintiff alleges that
they were considered exceptional employees until Chief
Marshall was hired. Plaintiffs allege that Chief Marshall and
other NFO members have and continue to harass them because
they were not members of the NFO.
summer 2017, the City of Northport conducted a special
investigation into Chief Marshall. The findings of this
special investigation were reported to the Mayor, but the
City of Northport did not take any of the recommended
corrective actions. Plaintiffs allege that since their
participation in the special investigation, none of them have
received promotions even though less qualified NFO members
have been promoted.
filed this action in September 2018, in the Circuit Court of
Tuscaloosa County, Alabama. The case was then removed to
Federal Court in November 2018. Plaintiffs allege that since
they have filed suit, NFO members have subjected them to
continued harassment and that no one has been disciplined for
these actions. As part of this alleged harassment, Plaintiffs
claim that an article regarding this suit was posted in the
breakroom, bathroom, and locker room at some of the Northport
Fire stations. In response to Plaintiffs' complaints
regarding this harassment, Chief Marshall is alleged to have
told Plaintiffs “[j]ust wait for the next
article.” (Doc. 17 ¶¶24, 36, 49, 61, 72, 81,
result of these actions, Plaintiffs have brought suit against
Defendants for negligent hiring and retaliation. In addition
to these claims, some of the Plaintiffs have brought
additional individual claims against Defendants. For the
purpose of clarity, the Court details below the factual basis
for each Plaintiff's claim.
who is African American, brings an additional claim for race
discrimination against Defendants. Mitchell was hired by the
Northport Fire Department in 2002. Mitchell alleges that
since Chief Marshall was hired, he has been subjected to
harassment by Chief Marshall that has included strict
scrutiny of his work, and Chief Marshall implementing changes
of procedures, policies, and practices at the Northport Fire
Department. During this time period, Mitchell claims that he
has not been provided with a copy of the harassment policy
despite making multiple requests for the
working for the Northport Fire Department, Mitchell was
involved in a verbal altercation with Todd Payne
(“Payne”) and four other firemen. Payne is
Caucasian and a member of the NFO. Mitchell alleges that this
altercation occurred because a lock that was on a locker was
cut to retrieve property that Payne was allegedly wrongfully
possessing. During this altercation, Payne threatened to bust
the windows out of Mitchell's vehicle. According to
Mitchell, Chief Marshall did not report the incident to Human
Resources due to Payne's membership in the NFO. Chief
Marshall then determined that Mitchell was at fault for the
altercation. As a result of this determination, Chief
Marshall suspended Mitchell and docked his pay for two (2)
days. Payne was not reported to human resources or punished
for his role in the altercation.
filed a grievance and an EEOC charge concerning this
incident, but he asserts that his grievance was ignored.
Mitchell alleges that since he filed his grievance concerning
his incident with Payne, his work environment has become more
hostile as he has been subjected to continued harassment by
Chief Marshall and NFO members, which has included the use of
threats and offensive language towards him. Mitchell also
alleges that during the time in question he was directed to
perform paramedic duties even though he is a firefighter.
Mitchell alleges that even though he was performing the
duties of a paramedic, he did not receive the same
compensation. Accordingly, Mitchell demanded equal
compensation. Mitchell alleges that in retaliation both for
his demand of equal pay and his complaint regarding Chief
Marshall's handling of his dispute with Payne, he was
moved to another station in the middle of his shift.
who is African American, also alleges that Defendants
discriminated against him due to his race. Hemphill was hired
by the Northport Fire Department in 2000. Hemphill, in
addition to his duties at the Northport Fire Department, is a
member of the Alabama National Guard. Hemphill is the only
African American employee entitled to a military leave of
absence pursuant to Ala. Code § 31-2-13.
October 2015, Chief Marshall is alleged to have cut
Hemphill's military leave from 21 to 7 days. Hemphill
complained to Chief Marshall about this decision and pointed
out to Chief Marshall that he could not choose the days he
had to report to duty. Chief Marshall responded to
Hemphill's complaint by laughing at him. According to
Plaintiffs, only the City Council for the City of Northport
could change the Northport Fire Department's military
leave policy. As a result of this change, Hemphill has had to
use his sick days and vacation days to fulfill his National
Guard duties. Hemphill alleges that the change in this policy
led the Mayor of Northport to order a special investigation
into Chief Marshall.
who is Caucasian, brings an additional claim against
Defendants for harassment. According to Plaintiffs, since the
NFO was formed a substantially higher number of its members
have been given promotions over local union members
regardless of the NFO members' qualifications. As a
result, Claybrook filed a grievance alleging that he and
other well-qualified candidates were not being promoted
because they were not members of the NFO.
had been promoted in the past, but he developed a conflict
with Scott Collins (“Collins”), the City's
previous administrator. Collins told Claybrook that he would
have him terminated and then followed through with this
threat. When the Civil Service Board held hearings on
Claybrook's termination, it determined that Claybrook was
improperly terminated. Claybrook was told he would be
reinstated to his most recent position, but this did not
occur. Collins is also alleged to have issued a memorandum
stating that Claybrook was ineligible for promotion upon his
return. Since this incident, Claybrook has sat for the
promotional exam multiple times and has scored highly each
time, but he has not been promoted.
who is African American, alleges that Defendants in addition
to retaliating against him unlawfully discriminated against
him due to his race. Carter was hired by the Northport Fire
Department in 2000 and currently serves as a Captain. Carter
alleges that since 2016 he has been subject to verbal abuse
from subordinates who are NFO members. In one incident, Lt.
Aultman, a NFO member, used obscene language in front of
other firefighters while speaking about Carter's
decision. Carter asked Lt. Aultman if he had a problem that
he wanted to discuss, but Lt. Aultman said no. Lt. Aultman
was then reported to the shift supervisor Battalion Chief
Ricky Mills (“Mills”) for his use of language.
Mills told Carter that he spoke to Chief Marshall about the
incident. Ultimately, Lt. Aultman was not disciplined and his
behavior continued. Carter reported this incident to the
Plaintiffs allege that Defendants rewrote certain standard
operating procedures to target Carter. (Doc. 17 ¶ 58.)
Specifically, Plaintiffs allege that Chief Marshall made
Carter shave his mustache unnecessarily due to an unfounded
safety concern regarding Carter's mustache allegedly
interfering with the seal of Carter's SCBA facemask.
Chief Marshall is alleged to have made this decision without
testing to see if Carter's mustache in fact was
interfering with the seal of Carter's SCBA facemask.
Carter subsequently filed a grievance alleging that the
“administration has a record of punishing the ones who
don't agree with them.” (Doc. 18 at 16.)
allege the following facts regarding Curruth's treatment
by Defendants. Curruth was hired by the Northport Fire Department
in 2000 and currently serves as a Lieutenant. According to
Plaintiffs, Curruth was improperly issued a corrective action
when a passport, a velcro card used to help list items and
ensure organization when fighting a fire, was lost during the
shift before his shift. Although the administration,
including Chief Marshall, knew about the lost passport and
knew that a new one would be issued first thing the next
morning, they issued a corrective action against Curruth, and
pressured him to take responsibility for the lost passport.
Curruth alleges that after this incident he was subject to
additional corrective actions. Accordingly, Curruth filed a
grievance with the special investigation. After Curruth filed
this grievance, Chief Marshall began to move Curruth between
different stations without explanation.
have made the following allegations regarding Defendants'
treatment of Pruitt. Pruitt, who is Caucasian, was hired in
2000, and currently works as a Captain and Paramedic as well
as a local Union representative at the Northport Fire
Department. Pruitt alleges that he has been subjected to
harassment at the Northport Fire Department because he is not
a member of the NFO.
alleges that although he has sat for numerous promotion exams
since 2014, he has not been promoted. Specifically, Pruitt
alleges that in February 2015, Chief Marshall told him,
contrary to the Northport Fire Department policies, that he
could not use his 2014 test scores to stand for promotion.
Pruitt alleges that as a result of ...